Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Ponti is a debut novel by Sharlene Teo, set in Singapore, where Teo was born. The narrative weaves between three timelines. It opens in 2003 with a story that, on the surface, appears to be Mean Girls set in a Singapore high school. Szu is clever but frequently in trouble and her only friend is the equally odd-ball Circe.

“Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot horrible earth. I am stuck in school, standing with my palms presses against a green wall. I am pressing so heard, my fingers ache. I am tethered to this wall by my own shame.”
But Szu is the daughter of Amisa, the star of a trilogy of cult horror films about the Pontianak – a savage, flesh-eating ghost disguised as a hauntingly beautiful woman. The second timeline reveals how Amisa went from village girl in rural Penang via never-quite-realised stardom to embittered motherhood.

“Amisa was a woman pushing a problem. The problem gurgled as they took laps around the park.”
The third brings us into the present day and is Circe’s story, forced to look back on the events of her school days when she becomes involved in promoting a remake of the Pontiniak films.

“Szu and I were sixteen, each other’s only friends in the world. We were symbiotic and that intense, irreplicable way that comes as part and parcel of being careworn teenage girls.”
The fourth key character is Aunt Yunxi – not Szu’s really aunty, but her mother’s oldest friend, who lives with them and runs a questionable business as a medium and spirit healer out of their house.

“The truth is my Aunt Yunxi is half woman, half violin. She screeches, she is narrow and stiff. She holds out her arms at odd angles as if they don’t belong to her.”

Singapore is polyglot and the narrative reflects that. As in Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, it is up to you whether you want to look up the references to food, clothing and so on, that pepper the text in Mandarin, Hakka, Teochew, Hokkien ... or let them flow past you, teasing you with possibility.

This is a sophisticated coming-of-age story that explores grief, loss, disappointment and their physical manifestations in teenage and young adult bodies. Its rich language vividly evokes a world that will be unfamiliar to many readers, without the need to exoticise it. If your only reference for Singapore is an image of a skyline of glass and concrete tower blocks, this is an entry into a whole different world, that of the city’s ordinary inhabitants.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Harmless Like Me by Rowan Hisayo Buchanon, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Avoid If You Dislike: casual multilingual references

Perfect Accompaniment: Red bean pancake and a diet coke

Genre: Literary Fiction, Coming of Age

Available on Amazon

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